I have met prostituted women and girls. The organisation I am with, Apne Aap Women Worldwide (www.apneaap.org), works with prostituted and at-risk of being trafficked women from certain caste communities in India where inter-generational prostitution exists. Our organisation also works with prostituted women and girls in red light areas, like Sonagachi – one of Asia’s biggest red light areas. Our attempt is to bring these women and girls out of prostitution by offering them more choices in life through education and livelihood linkages. And we have seen how women come out of the system with help and when choices are available. Or for those who cannot come out, they insist that we do something for their girls so they don’t live the lives of their mothers. In other words, the prostituted women my colleagues and I have met don’t feel good about what they do. Don’t hold a sense of pride in what they do. And definitely do not look at what they do as something that contributes to a dignified life, which is by the way a basic human right acknowledged globally.
So when I met this young Czechoslovakian woman (I am assuming she is Czechoslovakian by her name, which is a popular traditional name from the region which was a former country – Czechoslovakia) in Berlin last week, who identified herself as a ‘sex worker’, I had to listen to her because this was the first time I had met not a ‘prostituted’ woman but a ‘sex worker’. She works with an organisation in the city which conducts peer-to-peer education for ‘fellow sex workers’, she said. She educates them on their rights, gives them tax advice (because prostitution became legal in Germany in 2002), health and hygiene advice, advice on how to treat good customers and bad customers, etc. This is indeed important work, I must admit, for most of the women she is talking about come from a background where these discussions aren’t happening. Also, most of them are from East European countries and therefore they all the more lack knowledge about the legislation in Germany.
The young Czechoslovakian woman, pale with a sad look in her eyes, asked me why we want to criminalize the pimps, the brothel owners and the customers. ‘Why do you want to rob us off our work?’ she asked me. She sat there looking accusingly at me with those enormous sad eyes in a beautiful office. On the other couch sat an elderly woman, affectionate, quiet and there was something very powerful about her presence. I must admit I liked both of these women. Independent women, powerful with their voice, but just that I hoped they used their voice for something that wasn’t as short-sighted as asking for keeping the prostitution cycle going rather than wiping it off totally.
So the young Czechoslovakian woman, with bruises (maybe love bites, but ugly ones) on her arms, asked me why are we campaigning for the Nordic model (which decriminalizes the prostituted woman but criminalizes and penalizes the pimps, brothel keepers and customers). As a response, I asked her why wouldn’t she and her colleagues do that? She gave me a long answer, which I believe just proved my point. I don’t know if she sensed that.
She told me that women like her who find themselves in poverty, no education and skills to opt for other livelihoods, choose ‘sex work’ because that brings them out of poverty. She said that all those who speak for abolishing ‘sex work’ are moralists. I told her it is not a question of morality but violence and abuse in the name of work. I asked her if, just because prostitution is legal in Germany, she had not ever come across a customer who made her behave like a sex slave. She said there were customers like this, but that she also had good customers who were tender with her. But what caught my attention was, in a country where prostitution is legal, the so-called ‘sex worker’ had rights, she could also be made to act like a ‘slave’. I only wished her words were ringing in her ears in the same tone as they were in mine.
I asked her why wasn’t she and her colleagues simultaneously campaigning to pressure the government to invest more on women and girls from the kind of background that they come from, so they can have better choices. To this, she said, and her older colleague joined in, that the state is too patriarchal and so is society, which is why, from what I gathered, they have not much hope about seeing a world where there is no prostitution.
Anyway, when I was leaving, she came running down the stairs to give me some literature. We lingered at the door for a few moments. ‘Why did you come?’ she asked me. ‘Think of me as a fellow woman,’ I said, ‘Not as someone from an organisation or a campaign.’ There was a lot of warmth in her hug. And as I left, I carried her sad eyes with me.
In Munich, I met an abolitionist. At the pleasant and warm KOFRA office, a few women were browsing through books as Inge Kleine and I sat at a table discussing the young abolitionist movement in Germany and prostitution over some nice coffee. She told me that the Czechoslovakian woman I met in Berlin was from an organisation that received funds from the government. Anyway, what seemed striking to me is the recent developments in the country. A small abolitionist group which is now slowly increasing in strength. A few members from the Bundestag I met in Colombo and in Berlin, who were willing to listen to me when I spoke about the Apne Aap experience in India. They were all willing to engage with Devaki Jain and Amartya Sen’s notion of how development ought to be especially in South Asia: focused on rights rather than needs because with persistent lack of something, a community ceases to regard that something as a need. So, persistent lack of education makes a few communities think of schooling for children as a luxury. Persistent lack of healthcare makes a community regard healthcare as luxury. Persistent lack of housing makes a community perceive housing as a luxury. All these are basic human rights, respected by constitutions across the world as well as the United Nations human rights declarations, but the communities in question cease to see them as needs.
My experience with the young Czechoslovakian woman brought me to the same conclusion. She and her colleagues come from a community where the human right to dignity (receiving proper respect from others and treating oneself with self-respect) was perhaps not seen as a need. She spoke to me about her right to work in whichever fashion she wanted. She spoke to me about her right to seek state benefits. But she never for once spoke about her right to be treated with respect, but blamed the lack of this to patriarchy. And this brings me to my next point: the constitutional law of the Federal Republic of Germany has at its core human rights and human dignity. And if this has not assured human dignity to the prostituted women, some of whom may call themselves ‘sex workers’, then there must be something severely wrong either with people or with prostitution. For as we understand at Apne Aap through years of working with prostituted women, a woman never prostitutes herself. It is other people or the circumstances that prostitute her. In other words, prostitute has to be understood as a verb and not a noun if we want to engage with the notion of human dignity.